Holy Fire sets Orthodox rivalry ablaze in Jerusalem
By Victoria Clark in Jerusalem
Jerusalem's Orthodox Christians celebrating Easter this weekend may be set to make their own contribution to the region's violence when they gather at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem this afternoon for their annual Holy Fire ceremony.
In the absence of an 11th-hour agreement between the Greek and Armenian clergy who traditionally perform the ceremony, the Israeli authorities fear serious violence and have threatened - for the first time in the Holy Fire's more than 1,000-year history - to restrict attendance.
For the city's Orthodox Christians and thousands of pilgrims from the former Soviet Union and the Balkans the ceremony is the season's chief attraction. Undeterred by the two-and-a-half-year-old intifada and wider Middle Eastern unrest, many camped in the old Crusader church last night to participate in what most believe is a true miracle.
If all goes according to plan, at 2pm today the Greek Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem, accompanied by an Armenian bishop, will disappear inside the darkened shrine containing what remains of Christ's empty tomb to keep an appointment with God. A few minutes later they will leave, their candles ignited by a miraculously created fire, to share the blessing with the faithful.
Within seconds the church will be ablaze with the light of thousands of candles. The struggle of the faithful to keep their holy fires alight without burning anyone, while struggling towards the single door and fresh air, begins.
But the Israeli authorities have good reason to fear another kind of conflagration this year. Relations between the clergy who preside over the miracle have been inflamed since last year when the ceremony was marred by a brawl within the shrine.
Out of sight of the faithful, the two churchmen - the Armenian participating for the third time, the Greek for the first - fiercely disagreed on a matter of precedence. Should the Greek patriarch emerge first with the Holy Fire or the Armenian? Would the Greek or the Armenian Orthodox community be first to receive the light?
When Patriarch Irineos fought his corner by twice blowing out the Armenian's candle, the Armenian felt obliged to resort to a shameful expedient to obtain some Holy Fire.
"In this worst situation I had to use my emergency light, a cigarette lighter," he later admitted.
Sensing serious trouble, Greek and Armenian clergy joined in the fray and soon Israeli police arrived in the space no larger than two telephone boxes. "There was no hitting, only pulling and pushing,', said the Armenian Fr Samuel, recalling that he did manage to relieve the patriarch of one of his shoes in the scuffle.
"It's just the spirit of the 19th century again," chuckled Bishop Theophanis, a Greek resident in Jerusalem, explaining that the new patriarch is determined to be a doughtier defender of Greek prerogatives in the holy places than his elderly predecessor.
The matter has remained unresolved all year. During intense talks with both sides the Israelis have suggested that the Greeks be given the benefit of the doubt this Easter.
The Armenian patriarch favoured the compromise but was overruled by 15 out of 18 of his senior clergy. There are fears that young men representing both communities will be ready to fight if the occasion demands.
"It doesn't take much organising - you just need people on all the different levels of the church to be ready," said George Hintlian, who has 25 years' experience of representing the Armenian Orthodox in disputes arising over management of the holy places.
"I'm seriously worried that someone - perhaps an old person - will be killed if there is fighting."
Noisy and violent disputes in the church, which is shared by six Christian sects, are nothing new. Flare-ups over the positioning of candlesticks and mats, over the cleaning of a step, the length of a service or even the repair of a manhole cover pepper the church's long history.
Pope Gregory IX banned Roman Catholics from participating in the ceremony in 1238. The Greek patriarchate's website continues to advertise a miracle with a bold description - "a wheeze is heard and almost simultaneously blue and white lights penetrate from everywhere, as though millions of photographic flashes turn on".
Victoria Clark is the author of The Far-farers: a journey from Viking Iceland to Crusader Jerusalem